Detroit Institute of Arts acquires Paa Joe coffin

On February 5, 2023, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) announced two recent additions now on view in its acclaimed African gallery: a stunning Ghanaian fantasy Paa Joe coffin shaped like a Ford 1910 Model T, made by artist Joseph Ashong (a.k.a Paa Joe) – in honor of the Motor City’s auto workers – and a significant collection of masks from the West African nation of Burkina Faso.

“We are thrilled to put these exceptional works on public view for the first time since entering the DIA collection,” Nii O. Quarcoopome, curator and head of Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas at DIA, said. “Paa Joe’s coffin is a uniquely local piece, having been inspired by area high school students. In addition, the Burkina Faso masks, previously part of the prestigious james Wheelock collection, underscore the museum’s commitment to strengthening its world-acclaimed African art collection.”

Paa Joe made the Car-shaped Coffin (2018) from locally-sourced wood, Plexiglas, metal, paint, and fabric.

In 2017, the DIA hosted Paa Joe for a month-long residency at the museum. Utilizing his unique wood sculpting and joinery technique, Paa Joe and two assistants created a contemporary figurative coffin shaped like a 1910 Ford Model T, a motif selected by art students from Detroit’s Renaissance High School. The DIA later acquired the finished Paa Joe coffin for its collection.

Accompanied by insightful labels and contextual photos, Car-shaped Coffin reflects on death and the afterlife in contemporary Ghana, West Africa, where artists still create fantasy coffins to bury the dead. The Paa Joe coffin designs often speak to the deceased’s vocation or accomplishments. Some famous fantasy coffins are those shaped like cars, bibles, boats, airplanes, shoes, cell phones, and animals.

Burkina Faso masks

The DIA acquired the Burkina Faso masks in 2019 from the estate of noted American art collector James Wheelock. Mostly depicting animals, the objects originated from different cultures of the Burkina Faso, considered the mecca of West African masquerading.

Each piece has its unique attributes, but, as a group, they represent closely related masking traditions, which on occasion may be performed. As such, the installation attempts to capture the essence of such a spectacle. To this end, gallery installation features a supersized video showing similar masks in performance. Mask-wearing is more than face-covering in much of Sub-Saharan Africa as it is also a means to celebrate ancestors and interact with spirits.   

Museum Hours and Admission 

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesdays – Thursdays; 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed on Mondays.

General admission (excludes ticketed exhibitions) is free for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne County residents and DIA members. For all others, $14 for adults, $9 for seniors ages 62+, $8 for college students, $6 for ages 6–17.

For membership information, call 313-833-7971. 

About the Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of the premier art museums in the United States, is home to more than 65,000 works that comprise a multicultural survey of human creativity from ancient times through the 21st century. From the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum (Self-Portrait, 1887), to Diego Rivera’s world-renowned Detroit Industry murals (1932–33), to the first museum in the United States to have a permanent collection of galleries and a curatorial department devoted to African American art, the DIA’s collection is known for its quality, range and depth.

The DIA’s mission is to create opportunities for all visitors to find personal meaning in art individually and with each other. 

Programs are made possible with support from residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties.

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